A 44-year-old sales manager walks into your office saying she wants to join the Peace Corps in Chile but she's got a family, a house and a spouse in Idaho. You think midlife crisis but she's talking existential crisis. She tells you she's awakening into some new "reality" that's showing her that the values she's held may really be socially constructed ones that no longer suit her. She has family, friends, work and property - the very things Americans are taught to want--but now she feels like she's living somebody else's life. "Maybe the Peace Corps is a metaphor pushing me towards a more vivid landscape," she says, "away from the same kind of Idaho!"
JUST ANOTHER MID-LIFE CRISIS? She wants perspective, she says. She's too clear-headed to be crazy but you wonder if all this will lift once she has:
Your response is too neat and boring, you think. You have to listen at a deeper level. You ask her about her life story and sift for the darker angels of her makeup. For years she's been distracted by what others wanted her to do and at last is listening to herself. She is horrified by the Gulf War and Abu Garib and the vast encroaching power of big business, consumer culture and special interests. She called you after watching a news report on Darfur that was followed by an ad for the sleep aid, Ambien. She fears losing her edge, losing her ability to feel these things. She remembers President Bush telling people to go shopping after 911. She says we are taught to avoid pain and to take a pill of some kind when it surfaces; to be educated but not political. She tells you she wants to see what is real and not hide behind masks any more. You wonder about your own collection of masks.
AMBIEN OR REAL LIFE? You listen and though her ideas are not altogether new, the drive behind them makes visceral sense. She's tapping into a force field of insight that was once fresh to you. Now, as a counselor, you have a role to play, to be benevolently skeptical, but to support the truth of the process she's undertaking. She answers two of your questions. Yes, she has other ideas beside the Peace Corps:
And, no, she has no worrisome family history she can think of -just a dislike of secrets and a curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes- something she had since seeing The Wizard of Oz.
Though she forgets to buy cat food, flubs occasional Powerpoint presentations and wakes up at 3am, she says she's never felt more alive! Her doctor suggests Ambien! Her sister points to therapy and her spouse suggests Cancun -all things, she believes, that will defuse the energy that might possibly lead to further insight.
CONFRONTING YOUR FACE IN THE MIRROR: As you listen and feel concern for her, you wonder if you are society's stooge and are embodying much of what she's resisting. Can you really help her? You suggest she write her ideas down, and then, through illustrations, depict herself actually doing the work she's described.
She leaves excited but at her next session, she is exhausted and dispirited. "It's too hard," she says, "we'd take a loss on our house and our kids are upset at the idea and my husband's a wreck." She shows you her drawings to prove it!
THE HIGH COST OF CHANGE: "The full catastrophe," you say, perhaps too glibly quoting Zorba the Greek, your own guru of resilience and change. "That's why people don't do what they want to do. The costs are too high."
She says, "They're made to be high so people don't budge, don't really question the reality they are held captive by."
You give her a resource list and suggest she find ways to reconnect with her inspiration through books, art, music and stories of how people changed. You realize you have a vicarious interest in her story while also wondering if you'd have the guts to realize your own story if you had one!
Between office visits, she picks up a book by Michael Foucault, the French philosopher, who writes about society's need for stability and control and how it is from early childhood we are taught to accept simple answers to complicated questions. Finding Foucault sends her to Howard Zinn's working class interpretation of American history and then on to the writings of Michael Whyte and Mary Oliver, and to Frank Gehry whose melting kinetic buildings reflect her own inner experience.
She shares her findings with her husband who listens with trepidation. He says he fears their family coming apart at the seams. "Are you sure?" she asks, "or are you starting to question things that have needed questioning?"
FAST FORWARD FOUR MONTHS: She has applied for a graduate degree in American history and an events planning job working with political prisoners. She and her family plan to move to California and their children are using the Internet to help acculturate to that fact. As for her husband, her change is helping him uncover his own discontent with work and the conservatism that has governed his life.
POSTCARD FROM THE EDGE: Where that leaves you is seeing that living a very different life can take many forms, and that your fears of representing the status quo to her may have sharpened your critical thinking. She challenged your own inertia and got you agitated. In the end, you trust the meaning embedded in her postcard from a gas station in Lake Tahoe: "I wouldn't have gotten here without you!"
Kendall Dudley, MA, is principal of Lifeworks Career & Life Design of Lexington, MA. In addition to his private practice, he runs programs for Harvard and LesleyUniversities, presents at national conferences, and conducts special programs for corporate, academic and non-profits on career design and creative pre-retirement planning. He wrote Career Design Using Writing and Art(2006) and is at work on "Living Intentionally: 100 things to Do Before you Hit 100!" and has degrees from the Wharton School and Columbia University. For more information, please check out http://www.lifeworkscareers.com/. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org